Social Reform Takes More Than An Election


Jack Portman

Politics often shape the ebb and flow of social change, but frequently the inverse is true as well. Shifting cultural values have defined and redefined the composition of governments historically, such that it is sometimes difficult to disentangle whether policy affects social change, or vice versa. 

However, it is seemingly true that many social issues can’t be voted out of office. The acts of discrimination that occur between private citizens in the streets and on social media will continue well beyond the Trump presidency, and fighting to mitigate biases and phobias in the American cultural mainstream is paramount to achieving social justice. Unseating Trump is a means toward achieving a culture that celebrates non-normative and diverse identities, but it is not itself an end. 

Heinous acts of social injustice occurred under the Obama Administration just as they have since Trump’s inauguration. Trayvon Martin, Freddie Gray and Michael Brown were killed between 2008 and 2016 while the nation’s first black president inspired hope for a bright American future. Electing a progressive government is clearly not sufficient action in addressing systemic social justice issues. Likewise, few will be immediately inspired to lower their Confederate flags upon the election of a progressive president, and fewer will spontaneously interrogate their role in systematically perpetuating white supremacy. Unseating Trump won’t admonish the Islamophobic threats aimed at Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN), nor will it rectify violence against trans people or the underrepresentation of women in business. A fundamental cultural shift is necessary if social justice is to prevail, and electing a progressive president is only complimentary to this broader effort. 

These implications are two-fold. Importantly, unseating (or outlasting) Trump will not indicate success in combating discrimination. When civil, respectable, anti-racist rhetoric once again proliferates from the White House, it is imperative that we not be assuaged by the return to normalcy. Combatting the discrimination and inequality which permeates American culture can never cease. 

But just as the arrival of post-Trump America is not an end towards which social justice works, neither is it a beginning for reform and healing. While strong Democratic presidential candidates consolidate support, refine their platforms and expand their name recognition in hopes of a shot at the presidency in 2020, much can be done meanwhile to to precipitate the social changes which will enable a successful progressive candidate to govern effectively. That our president presently spews vulgarities about immigrants and works to undermine abortion protections does not preclude grassroots social change. 

I am disheartened by the inanity of  Trump’s rhetoric, but what most disturbs me is the rapturous support with which it is received by Americans. Without a sweeping cultural shift which sees the introduction of minority, feminist and LGBTQ+ interests into serious and thoughtful mainstream discourse, the election of a progressive president will be doomed to inefficacy by obstinate conservative opponents. 

Hence, combatting the status quo in our daily lives and engaging in discussions about race, gender and immigration in America may be more important than who we elect as president. While I’m thrilled by the prospects of a President Pete Buttigieg, a President Kamala Harris or a President Bernie Sanders, as long as climate change, trans rights and anti-racism are considered too divisive for mainstream discourse, future progressive presidents will be limited in their efficacy. 

I look forward to casting a vote for a strong, principled, progressive candidate in 2020, but meanwhile, it is important that we work towards fostering cultural narratives which normalize discussions of social justice issues. No matter which candidates rise to prominence, any Democratic successor to Trump will face impassioned opposition from his supporters. In order to ensure that our next president succeeds in advancing a progressive social justice agenda, we as citizens must do our part to redefine our political and cultural narratives.